P.E.I.’s Get Everyone Accessibly Riding (G.E.A.R.) cycling club is hosting a 200-km ride across the Island Sept. 4-5 to raise funds to provide people who are visually impaired with the opportunity to cycle for leisure or competition
Dave Carragher of Meadow Bank has a need for self-propelled speed.
When he’s on a bicycle, he loves the rush of the heart-racing zone, especially if he’s in full competition mode.
The fact that he is legally blind is an afterthought, thanks to a buddy riding system that involves a fully sighted volunteer and a tandem bicycle.
“OK, one, two, three,” Carragher’s cycling pilot Harvey Chandler signals and the two take off for a spin in preparation for the upcoming Keir Carragher Memorial Red Island Ride.
This two-day event on Sept 4-5, in which both blind and sighted cyclists are encouraged to participate, is to raise funds for the Get Everyone Accessibility Riding (G.E.A.R.). This cycling club was recently founded by Carragher to help other blind or visually impaired persons have the same tandem riding opportunities that have dramatically changed his life.
As a child, life was humming along pretty well for Carragher until he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 12. This progressive eye disease damages the retina, decreasing vision over time.
“It wasn’t good,” he remembers of the shocking news.
“(Now) I have a little less than 10 per cent and it’s all peripheral. So I have no central vision left.”
Still, he continued to do the things he enjoyed — hockey, soccer, baseball and football — until his declining vision forced him to stop.
“I was just a normal kid. I rode my bike as much as possible and I rode it right up till I basically couldn’t (at the age of 14). I had too many crashes and I was like, ‘OK, I need to stop doing this before I seriously hurt myself,’” he remembers.
After high school, things pretty much came to a standstill sport-wise until his longtime friend Tyler Reid, who is a triathlete, encouraged him to try the sport, which includes swimming, cycling and running.
“Basically I kept having to say no. I couldn’t train with him because I couldn’t do the bike portion because at that point I still had no idea what a tandem (bike) was,” he remembers.
Then in 2008 Carragher discovered Joe’s Team: The Blind Guys Tri-Team in Toronto, Ont., through the CNIB. This team is made up of athletes living with vision loss and 30 sighted guides who compete together.
Carragher went to a training camp that fall at the CNIB Lake Joseph Centre in Muskoka, Ont., and returned in July 2009 for his first sprint triathlon, which is a 750-metre swim, a 20-km bike ride and a five-kilometre run.
The CNIB matched Dave with volunteer pilot/guide Steve Morrison from Ontario.
“Basically the pilot, or guide in this case (of running and swimming), is with us in all three disciplines of the triathlon,” he says.
“So in the water we’re tethered together with a short bungee cord and depending on what level of vision that you have you can either use another tether (for running) or just run side by side. And for biking we’re on a tandem.”
Carragher’s goal was to finish and he did.
“I was really proud of myself to keep (my training) going throughout the whole winter and stuff like that because prior (to that) I was the biggest starter and not finisher. So I was mostly proud of myself to keep that going and being able to balance it in with the rest of my life,” he says.
“He’s always had to stop doing things since he was a child,” his mother, Cathy Carragher, explains.
“First he stopped playing baseball because he couldn’t see the ball. And then as his vision diminished, with every sport it was ‘I can’t play that anymore because I can’t see well enough to do it.’ So this was the first time he had the opportunity to finish, to actually be able to get to the finish line. So it was pretty amazing.”
Carragher returned to Muskoka in July 2009 for another sprint marathon. He finished in 1:58, shaving five minutes off his previous time.
One week later he was in New York ready to race again; only this time it was a full Olympic triathlon, which is a 1,500 metre, swim, a 40-km bike ride and a 10-km run.
“It’s completely double the distance,” he says.
“But I got the opportunity to go. I didn’t feel very ready for it at all, but I just said like the year before I’m going to finish. And I finished.”
But he and volunteer pilot/guide Joe Loria of New York, with whom he was billeted during his stay there, had their finishing work cut out for them.
“We had some interesting things to overcome in that race. We were swimming tethered together and my tether came off my guide about three-quarters of the way through the swim (in the Hudson River). We were swimming with the aid of an eight-knot current as well so he had to swim pretty hard to catch up with me because I didn’t realize so I just kept swimming as normal,” Carragher smiles.
“There was a steel ramp to get out of the water and one of the (swimmers) behind me thought (my tether) was a towrope to get out. So he was pulling on my tether and basically almost pulled me back into the water.”
To top that off their bike broke down four times.
“Basically we were ready to throw it over the bridge at the end of it. But we just kept going. Our goal was to finish and when we crossed that finish line it felt amazing,” he says.
Two weeks later, Carragher was at the starting point with volunteer Ryan Bradley for a sprint triathlon in Stanhope, P.E.I., where they faced challenges unique to swimming in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“We were in about four- to five-foot waves. Through the whole 750 metres you just got slammed by a wave every time you went to take a breath,” says Carragher, who added this finish to his growing triathlon list.
There’s an ulterior motive in his list of competitions and their required training — the opportunity to raise awareness for G.E.A.R., which he founded with his family, in conjunction with ParaSport and Recreation P.E.I.
“The best way to promote (the organization) is to actually get out there and ride where people are able to see you,” he says.
G.E.A.R. now has five tandem bicycles for use on the weekly rides. There have also been a number of demos and volunteer pilot training sessions.
“It’s all about practice. The more you do it the better you get at it and the more comfortable you are,” says Kim MacPhail of Charlottetown, who is new to the tandem pilot scene.
The upcoming Keir Carragher Memorial Red Island Ride is to raise funds to purchase more tandem bicycles and to help support people who are visually impaired who are interested in cycling. A portion of funds will also be donated to the Heart and Stroke Foundation in memory of Carragher’s father who died suddenly last year.
Carragher’s sister Leslie, who also has retinitis pimentos, stopped cycling 10 years ago when her vision became too bad to ride.
However, she’s back at it again, after listening to her brother’s advice.
“It took him a year to convince me to get on a bike,” she laughs. “I have more fear than Dave does, but I’m hooked now. It’s just fun. It’s good exercise and you get to meet people.”
Stella Walsh of Charlottetown agrees. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at a young age, she never had the chance to ride a bicycle. But that didn’t deter her from trying for the first time last year at the age of 53.
“I was pretty nervous when I got on the first time. I held on pretty tight,” she admits, laughing.
Now there’s nothing she enjoys more than a leisurely ride on the tandem.
“It gets you out and you get to ride a bike when you’ve never done it before. It’s pretty incredible.”
For Carragher, the return to cycling and the entrance into the triathlon world has improved his confidence in sport and with the world in general.
“I really find through the sport and through the travelling, my self-confidence has gone up a lot over the past two years. I really feel that it has helped my athletic abilities and my non-athletic abilities grow as well.
“If that can be done for other people through the sport of cycling then that’s great as well. Also, it’s just another fun activity that visually impaired or blind people don’t get to do until someone provides the opportunity. Someone provided that opportunity to me in the fall of 2008 to get back on a bike. I hadn’t been on a bike for about 10 years before that, so I’m just trying to pay it forward and help other people enjoy the sport of cycling . . . .”
AT A GLANCE
• The Keir Carragher Memorial Red Island Ride begins at Mill River on Sept. 4 and ends that day in Cornwall. The ride wraps up in Souris on Sunday, Sept 5.
• This event is open to sighted and non-sighted cyclists. Riders can sign up as individuals or as relay teams. Cyclists can also sign up to be tandem guides.
• Net proceeds will be used to develop the G.E.A.R. program and to help Islanders who are blind or are visually impaired to participate in cycling, both for leisure and competition. A portion of funds will be donated to the Heart and Stroke Foundation in memory of Keir Carragher.
• The ride is a total of 200 kilometres, with rest stops every 25 km. There’s a banquet Saturday night and a barbecue at the end.
• Participating cyclists are ex-pected to raise at least $50 in addition to the registration fee. They’ll receive a souvenir jersey.
• People are encouraged to register as soon as possible. Applications are available online at www.parasportpei.ca.